I’m playing Resident Evil 2 for the first time. Well, mostly—back in 1998, my 14-year-old self scoured the pages of a Tips and Tricks magazine walkthrough of the game, covering every gameplay beat and plot point. And I played a few minutes of it on a friend’s PS1. So I’m familiar with the scenery and structure, the quests and characters. But this is the first time I’m truly experiencing it.
It’s scary and tense, and very much a period piece, a late-90s survival horror game (set squarely in the later Clinton era, with dollar gallons of gas and chunky computers) now boasting some modern design niceties. Playing on normal, I can save as many times as I’d like, and the cutscenes and visuals are prettied up to RE7 standards.
But one thing that’s sticking out to me—still early on, in the police station—is how perfectly the game uses scarcity and this fantasy of hyper-competence to make me feel a certain way. How much permission it gives me to be a total, solipsistic asshole: the lone survivor type (ok, there are a couple of other survivors, but I need not interact with them in terribly complex ways or deal with the politics of survival). How the fantasy here presents an uncomfortable tension between the ways I want to roleplay in this world versus the ways the game requires me to play to make it through the night.
As I stalk the halls of the station, dressed as they are in intermittent fluorescent lights and weird sepia tones of an old museum, I’m vulnerable. I don’t have many bullets to protect myself with. I have far fewer healing items. Zombies are tough: even on normal, they take multiple headshots, and they often don’t stay down. I have to raid this place to survive: by looking in lockers, desks, in weird corners and dark cabinets. And I’m collecting all kinds of things: bullets, sure, but also gunpowder and knicknacks (to solve puzzles). Keys. Crappy boards to slam onto windows and “keep out the riffraff” as the item’s tooltip tells me.
At first, I oddly felt a little weird taking things. The station was designated as a shelter during the zombie outbreak. There are cots and bloody sheets, IV stands, boxes of food and medical supplies everywhere. Early on, protagonists Claire and Leon hear a radio message instructing all citizens to head for the station.
That notion is wild, the police station as fortress/safe haven is laughably naive (particularly for people of color). It certainly was in the 90s as well, and really, when has policing in America ever actually been about keeping neighborhoods safe as opposed to keeping a racist status quo up and running? Though the game does later connect the upper echelons of the police management with the evil, shady doings of the Umbrella corporation (whose decidedly unethical bioweapons research started the whole zombie apocalypse in the first place).
I still feel a little bad looting the place, at least at first, since this is a staging area for what we in EMS call a Mass Casualty Incident. So of course I went in thinking like an EMT. Looking for survivors to help. Like the nice dude who saves me from a faulty door, Marvin, who is clearly suffering from some kind of awful wound. I want to help him. Claire wants to help him too, exclaiming that we need to get him to the hospital, but he refuses. And the game doesn’t give me any tools for mending wounds or even putting gauze or bandages on something. The only first aid items are hilarious magical herbs and sprays, though the guns and blood look, well, more or less like the actual thing. This is a game about dealing and surviving damage, not healing it.
And after awhile, I subtly give in to its goofy logic.
Yes, I absolutely need this green plant, because seven more zombies will try to eat my face before I’m done on this floor. Yes, I definitely need this personal locker combination, because I need that ammo (see again, the seven zombies with a taste for flesh). It’s clear that I’m the only real agent in this world, it’s been designed around me. My needs.
So I have permission to loot and run, just mashing the X button to try and drive-by pickup items. There’s no one else here, really. It’s a world all for me, and I’m allowed to do anything I goddamn well please. To treat it all like my own shitty playground. No, I need to treat it this way if I want to progress. And I’m morally allowed to, because I’m not hurting anyone else (anyone who is alive, anyway), because scarcity doesn’t affect anyone else in this world.
Does it matter to Marvin—or Leon, for that matter, during my Claire playthrough—if I use every healing item on myself? Nope! If I barely have a scratch on me, I can still walk right up to where Marvin is bleeding out of his abdomen, and spray myself with magic healing green shit, with no consequences. I can use every bullet for myself. I am the only thing I need to worry about for much of the game. I know there’s a sidequest later on that complicates this, but for now, this is just another thing I’m permitted to be. Selfish.
I’m also not really allowed to do anything I please, as the verbs are pretty limited. I wanted to play with all the food items in the store in the opening gameplay scene. Look at all the goofy fake labels and such, like I do in a Life is Strange game or a walking sim. But that’s a very different sort of permission fantasy, isn’t it? The ability to touch and play with so many aspects of a world, with no angry shopkeeper staring at me and my now-very-obviously-queer haircut.
But here I am limited to and encouraged to engage in a whole bunch of anti-social behaviors. Stealing shit. Shooting antagonists in the face. Stabbing them. Trying to get them to walk halfway into doors so I can headshot them. I can “interact” with survivors sometimes, but only in very prescripted ways.
And no, this design paradigm is not new. This is a survival horror game, doing (competently and even well) the kinds of things the genre is good at. It’s not making me feel powerful so much as hyper-competent and allowed to do “bad” things. It’s a terrible world, and I have to survive! RE 2 successfully put me in this mindset inside of its first hour, from the sort of player who usually loves to admire every tiny detail and art asset to a… grabby, selfish, grizzled jerk. Not even Alien: Isolation did that for me.
I’ve stopped playing this game like an EMT, the way I started: concerned about medical supplies and survivors, and more like a lone commando. The asshole who lives to fight another day. Me vs. the world.
The character design supports this too. I’m playing as Claire right now, a white chick in a leather jacket who open-carries a sidearm everywhere she goes. Just, on an average day, not for a special occasion like the day hell broke loose on Raccoon City. Claire probably brings her trusty handgun to get her hair cut. It’s just who she is. And as she remarks to Marvin early on, “I can take care of myself.” She can. Claire has obvious combat training and handles herself well. She’s a leather- wearing, motorcycle-driving, oh-so-90s badass woman character, the kind I, frankly, often enjoy playing as.
In real life, I carry a tourniquet, exam gloves and gauze everywhere I go. I keep a little kit, right in my real-life purse, just in case I need to help someone. I’ve had to use it before (the gloves and gauze, anyway), as a passer-by to an assault. I’ve… thankfully never needed to use my supplies in a zombie outbreak, not yet. But I’d like to think, in my heart of hearts, that I’d be a different kind of survivor than Claire or Leon are really allowed to be in RE 2.